Badge-engineering. You know the drill: take a run-of-the-mill bog standard plain Jane vanilla sort of car, add some external bits and internal pieces, tweak the ride, slap on a more prestigious badge and jack-up the price. More specifically, the "new" Lincoln Zephyr is a Ford Fusion with a modified grill, wood trim, floatier ride, Lincoln logo and an inflated sticker price. So rather than badge engineer my Ford Fusion review, I'm going to tell you what Ford– sorry, Lincoln, should have done with this car.
The obvious answer is nothing. Lincoln needs a front-wheel-drive mid-size sedan like Hummer needs a camouflage SMART (unless they use it as an H2 escape pod). Even if we ignore Lincoln's illustrious past– first betrayed in 1936 by a funny-looking car called a Zephyr– the brand's recent history sets the standard. Exhibitionist A: the Lincoln Continental Mark IV: a huge, thirsty, poorly-built, foul-handling beast from a time when jeans had bells at the bottom. While the infinitely smaller [modern] Zephyr is so safe and reliable it Hertz and boasts twice as much everything room than the old Mark, Lincoln's '70's luxobarge holstered a 7.5-liter V8 with more swagger than Ludacris at a Kapp Alpha Theta. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about.
Here's the thing: if Lincoln was stuck with the po' faced Fusion, they should've at least re-designed it for gang bangers. But no; once again, street culture rescues a luxury brand from the dumpster and the suits go straight back to building boring cars for stupid white people. The official terminology for the Zephyr's 'waterfall' grill and tail lights (which make it look narrower than a Chevrolet Aveo) is "unpretentious luxury." News flash: stealth wealth went out of style around the same time MTV started showing rap videos and Gianni Versace sold his first $2000 silk shirt. Lincoln's coveted younger buyers crave "subdued luxury" about as much as they hanker after a Michael Bublé CD. Probably less.
Not that it's easy to bling-out a Fusion. For last year's SEMA tunerfest, Ford handed-out free Fusions like they were going out of style (as if). In terms of sex appeal… let's just say that finding the show cars on the tuners' websites is a bit of challenge. Anyway, Lincoln should have ripped the clothes off the Fusion– all of them– and started again. Or at least come up with something a little racier than a Lincoln LS mini-me grill. When your family face says airport limo, plastic surgery that leaves your design heritage in the bio-hazard bag is more than OK. It's mission critical.
Inside– oh c'mon; is that really the best American luxury can do? Wood that looks like plastic, plastic that looks like plastic, leather that feels like plastic and a redesigned dash that's the luxury car equivalent of the White Cliffs of Dover? Lincoln should have given the Zephyr to a proper pimper and let loose the dawgs of design. The Zephyr should have one of those wikkid touch-screen ICE deals that unfolds itself from the dash and hits you with some LSD graphic equalizer visuals and a bazillion watts of surround sound. I'm also thinking screens everywhere but the ashtray and a chilled glove box with Lincoln-branded water. Leather piping around the seats? Spizzarkle uber alles baby!
As for the drivetrain, Lincoln of all brands should know that mindless ease is the name of the luxury car game. Obviously, that's a gig requiring some serious shove and massive twist. Unfortunately, the Zephyr's 3.0-liter whiney six is both anemic and torquerexic. Speaking of American innovation, Lincoln should've transplanted the teeny-tiny Japanese V8 nestling in the nose of the Volvo XC90 into the Zephyr's engine bay. Or they could have stuck a supercharger or turbocharger or steam turbine onto ye olde Duratec. It might've made a Hell of a racket, but it might also have given customers both ancient and contemporary a reason to live.
Why Lincoln decided to plush-out the Zephyr's ride is beyond me; the Fusion's handling dynamics are the best thing about Lincoln's donormobile. As far as I can tell, the chassis guys simply added some nauseating horizontal waft to the equation and dialed out a bit of steering feel. OK, the lumps and bumps have been muted; but is the Macarena any less annoying at lower volumes? Lincoln should have either left the Fusion's ride and handling as they found it, or smothered all road feel, in the great Lincoln tradition.
Of course, money makes my plan unworkable. The Zephyr was built– I mean badge-engineered– to a budget. Doing anything interesting to the Fusion would have elevated the Zephyr beyond its "natural" price point. Yes, well, it's that kind of thinking that got Ford into this hole in the first place.
[Lincoln provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance, taxes and a tank of gas.]